In the summer of 1941, over a hundred American pilots mysteriously vanished from their bases. Rumors abounded that the men were off to China to fight the Japanese with a group called the “American Volunteer Group.” Led by ex-Army pilot Claire Chennault, these young men (and some women) were embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. They didn’t know that their unit had been authorized at the highest levels of the Roosevelt administration as a covert operation to help the Chinese in their war against the Japanese: they just wanted a chance to see the world—and they were getting paid handsomely for it.
They would become known as the “Flying Tigers,” a unit so famous that John Wayne made a movie about them during the war. Their shark-faced P-40 fighter would become one of the most recognizable images of World War II: and today you can find that design on everything from backpacks to bicycles.
This is the true story behind that famous symbol and unit, revealed for the first time through the letters and diaries that were largely hidden away after the war.
It’s the story of young Americans arriving at a remote outpost in Burma in Fall 1941 (before Pearl Harbor) and preparing to risk their lives to take on the Japanese. They would become the first Americans to fight the Japanese (the first battle on December 20, 1941) and they became America’s first heroes in the war—but not all of them would make it home.
“Right now—boy what I wouldn’t give for a Coca-Cola,” pilot John Donovan wrote in a letter. “What I’d give for a Hamburger + a malt,” another wrote in his diary. They were thousands of miles from home and had forfeited everything that was familiar to them.
Each day was a new adventure at the Toungoo airfield, and each morning began with the same ritual: at around 5:30 a.m. a Burmese man marched between their bunks banging a gong as loudly as he could. As soon as they hopped up, they’d feel the humidity envelop them. A water tank connected to bamboo rods served as their makeshift showers. The toilet was a “four-holer.” When they got dressed, the men had to be careful to shake out their shoes in case a scorpion had crawled in during the night. They would then hustle to the mess hall and try to shield their plates from the insects competing for their rations. They’d find Claire Chennault, the commander of their unit, in the teak-wood shack standing in front of a blackboard lecturing, just as he had in the small country schoolhouses where he’d taught back in Louisiana. Chennault knew that as much as the pilots may have wanted to get in a cockpit, they had to sit down and listen to what he had to say. They called this Chennault’s “kindergarten,” and for good reason.
He drew a Japanese plane, then used colored chalk to circle the spots the men should aim for: oil coolers, oxygen storage, gas tanks, bomb bays. Then he’d erase the circles, call upon a pilot, and ask him to draw them back on, reciting each part for the class. It was rote, but he wanted these men to know the enemy aircraft like the backs of their hands. Dutiful students, the pilots filled spiral-bound notebooks with copious notes.
Few of the pilots had flown a P-40 before, and because it didn’t take much to turn a smooth flight into a fiery crash, Chennault wanted them to get some experience in the cockpit before they went into battle. The P-40 was an Army Air Corps plane, and for the recruits who had been flying big planes in the navy, this would be a new type of flying. A small mistake could be fatal.
Joe Rosbert was one of the navy pilots who knew this would be a challenge. The P-40 was “almost on ground level compared to the much larger” planes he was used to flying in the navy. Like all the new arrivals, he hadn’t flown for a few months and he nervously adjusted his parachute and looked over the cockpit before checking out in the P-40 for the first time. A senior pilot came by to give him some final tips: “Careful when you taxi,” he told Rosbert. “And don’t land the thing thirty feet in the air, bring it right down on the ground.” That wasn’t reassuring, but he was in the cockpit and it was time to go.
“The engine started with a roar and I felt as though the plane was going to take off right then and there before I was ready,” he recalled. The crew chief gave him the signal to proceed and as he taxied “the long, sharp nose blocked out vision straight ahead.” He snaked along to avoid hitting the other planes on the runway. “Here we go,” he said to himself, then “the plane lurched forward with a terrific burst of power, pushing me back against the seat.” As if he were coaching himself, he said, “Tail up.” He lifted off the ground. The wheels retracted and the plane “zoomed up at more than two thousand feet per minute.” Finally, when he reached twelve thousand feet, he could get a feel for the plane. He took it into a steep dive and could feel the power as the “speed picked up almost at a frightening rate.” That was what Chennault had been talking about. He looked down at the green jungle below. He did a few rolls and then tried a spin. “I was exhilarated beyond description.”
He brought the plane down, and as the wheels touched the runway he said to himself, “This is what I came for.” He taxied to a stop, and once the propeller stopped spinning another pilot came out to greet him, shouting, “How’d you like it?”
He smiled and replied, “Couldn’t be better.”
To a man, they were glad to be back in the air. “The sound heard in the cockpit of a P-40 under full power is awesome beyond description,” pilot Erik Shilling would write. “To a fighter pilot’s ear, the Philadelphia Philharmonic Symphony would fade in comparison.”
“It even smelled good with that rich aroma found only in certain airplanes, a not-too-subtle mixture of hot metal, exhaust gases, and paint that most pilots preferred to Chanel No. 5,” another pilot remembered. As the men grew more confident in the cockpit, Chennault would send up two planes at a time in mock battle.
Chennault didn’t pilot a P-40 himself but stood instead in a bamboo watchtower next to the field, observing his men through binoculars as they soared overhead. Sometimes he’d yell into the radio, giving instructions and corrections. The pilots came to feel a sense of intimacy with their aircraft as they learned to handle every knob and dial in the cockpit.
On a training flight on September 8, two P-40s engaged in a mock battle collided in midair. One plane lost a wing, and the pilot, Gil Bright, bailed out, narrowly escaping before his plane plunged down. The other pilot, John Armstrong, a graduate of Kansas State College, was found still strapped into his seat in the mangled wreckage of his plane. After the service, the chaplain delicately pulled the American flag off the casket and folded it up; it was later shipped to the young man’s mother. As they left the cemetery, dark clouds blocked out the sun, deepening the oppressive sense of gloom they already felt. Armstrong’s was just the first in a series of fatal accidents for the American Volunteer Group. Pilot Maax Hammer lost control of his P-40 in a monsoon. Pete Atkinson tried to pull his P-40 out of a dive and the plane began to come apart, seeming to “disintegrate into a million pieces,” as an onlooker put it. His body crashed through the tin roof of a house. Three had been lost in less than two months.
George McMillan, a dashing, six-foot-tall Floridian, wrote regular letters home to his mother telling her how much he missed her and that he wished he could be with her for Thanksgiving. The carefree days he would spend with his friends at Daytona Beach were long gone. Now, barely past his twenty-fifth birthday, he made out a will, leaving everything to his parents if he was killed. He would mail them a copy to keep in case something happened. The gloom seemed contagious. On the phonograph in the barracks, “I’ll Never Smile Again” by Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey was in constant rotation. Each man had to grapple with the knowledge of the suddenness, the randomness of mortality. They’d seen it with their own eyes and understood there was no logical explanation for why one man died and the other did not. They pushed down the fear, though, and moved on.
They installed an old 16-millimeter movie projector in the mess hall. The sound was scratchy and out of sync with the screen—but going to the movies offered a precious few hours of thoughtless spectacle. During The Ghost Breakers, a Bob Hope comedy featuring former Ziegfeld dancer Paulette Goddard in various stages of undress, the moans and howls from those watching could be heard all over the base. The night that Pete Atkinson was killed the men gathered to watch Flying High, a 1931 musical about an inventor determined to fly his new “aerocopter.” One man said “the movie took the edge off the day.”
Despite the intense training, the American Volunteer Group didn’t look much like a real military outfit. Since the men weren’t enlisted in the army, there were no dress inspections—indeed, there were no uniforms— and the men grew out their hair and sported mustaches. The base didn’t look like an army installation either. With monkeys living in the barracks as pets, the effect was something like a circus troupe mixed with a fraternity party. The men embraced their freedom, and with a bit of wanderlust they decided to explore the Burmese countryside. A group of pilots took a truck and drove deep into the mountains, where they found a little stream for swimming. Some even ventured into the jungles armed with shotguns and knives to go hunting, though they were more likely to catch malaria than a tiger.
Unsurprisingly, one of their main diversions was alcohol—if they could find it. Chennault demanded perfection of his men in the cockpit, but otherwise allowed them to party like they were at “a college campus on the eve of a homecoming football game.” They drank whatever they could find—whiskey brewed by the natives, gin brewed by the nearby missionaries, and a potent mixture of rum that the Burmese called “Tiger Balm.” If they were willing to bike the seven miles into Toungoo’s tiny town center, they could have a meal and a drink at the small restaurant in the railroad station, a simple redbrick establishment. Anyone in search of a greater adventure on the weekends could take the train to Rangoon for a night out at the Silver Grill, a restaurant and nightclub popular with the British and other European expats, who would dance the night away in the back room. Into this relatively civilized assembly barged the brash American pilots.
Whenever the men needed a wholesome touch of comfort in the Burmese jungle, they’d join an American missionary couple, Chester and Alice Klein, for Sunday-night dinners. They were homey affairs that would prove to be the setting for one of the more influential developments in the identity of the American Volunteer Group. Chester had served in the U.S. Army in France during the Great War, and the Ohio native had later spent over twenty years in Burma before becoming famous among Chennault’s men for his homemade gin. After dinner one night in November 1941, their guests were sitting in the living room having a drink, when one of the pilots happened to pick up the Kleins’ copy of an English-language newspaper, the Illustrated Weekly of India, which had an Australian P-40 on the cover. The nose of that P-40 was painted to look like it had the face of a shark, giving the pilots an idea for a redecorating project.
The next morning, a few of the pilots picked up some chalk from Chennault’s classroom and headed down to the flight line on their bikes. They sketched the outline of what they’d seen across the nose of the P-40s in the photo—marking where the wide-open mouth and fearsome teeth would go—before asking Chennault what he thought. Not only did he like it, he wanted the design painted on the whole fleet as a distinct marker of the American Volunteer Group. They set about painting the side of every plane with a nose that looked like a shark’s snout and a beady shark eye above the mouth. Head on, it looked like the plane was coming to eat you alive: the intake at the front of the nose was like the gaping maw that a shark’s prey would disappear into. The pilots could never have imagined how iconic those faces would become in the months, years, and decades to come.
They were ready. “We’d like a change of scenery and a little excitement,” George McMillan wrote in a letter home dated December 7, 1941. He cut the letter short, noting it was time to get to dinner. Pilot John Donovan wrote to his parents in Montgomery, Alabama: “It seems that when you get near where danger is, you want to do something to relieve the danger.” The relief he had in mind was fighting.
He wouldn’t have to wait long: on December 7, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
The American Volunteer Group was called to China to get into the fight and by the end of the month they had earned a new moniker. Though no one seemed to know where it came from, the American press dubbed this rag-tag group of pilots “The Flying Tigers.” Overnight and almost accidentally, they became some of the first Americans fighting in the Pacific and their exploits would make them become legends in their own time.
From THE FLYING TIGERS by Sam Kleiner, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Samuel Kleiner.